- 04 Mar 04
Sinn Féin’s first sitting TD since 1918 chooses his words carefully for the Hot Press Political Interview. “I’m not measured or calculating,” he explains, “this is me. As I am.” Liam Fay fires the questions. Pic: Cathal Dawson
They say that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. The medium of self-expression favoured by the Sinn Féin politician, however, is the mantra.
Grab yourself a string of chanting beads and you can join in the incantation yourself: “(Trad. arr.) We must face up to the need for the recreation of the conditions that will allow us to move out of conflict and onto a pathway towards a permanent peace. Hare! Hare! The only way forward is through dialogue and inclusive negotiations. Krishna! Krishna!”
The latest member of the Sinn Féin Cantors to come to national prominence is Caoimhghín O’Caoláin, the newly elected TD for Cavan/Monaghan. O’Caoláin made history, not to mention international headlines, on June 26th last when he became the first Sinn Féin deputy to sit in Dáil Eireann since 1918.
Aged 43, O’Caoláin was elected on the first count in Cavan/ Monaghan, having secured a mighty mandate of 11,531 first preference votes, the sixth highest total in the country. It was his fourth attempt at winning a Dáil seat for Sinn Féin. Though his immediate family were Fianna Fáil supporters, he comes from a staunchly Republican background.
O’Caoláin is a first cousin of Eineachan O’Hanlon, who was elected to Leinster House in 1957 after the death of his brother, Feargal, in the infamous IRA attack on Brookeborough Barracks. O’Hanlon did not take up his Dáil seat because of Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy which wasn’t finally abandoned until 1986.
At the age of 28, Caoimhghín O’Caoláin was a senior official with the Bank Of Ireland in one of its midlands branches when he acted as Director of Elections for the hunger striker Kieran Doherty who contested, and won, the Cavan/Monaghan seat in 1981. When Doherty died, O’Caoláin delivered the graveside oration. A year later, he resigned from the bank to work full-time with Sinn Féin.
After a stint as General Manager of the Sinn Féin paper, An Phóblacht, during which he saw the stated circulation rise to 45,000 copies per week, O’Caoláin was elected to Monaghan County Council, in 1985. He topped the poll in the Urban District Council elections of 1994, and continues to serve on both bodies. He also sits on Sinn Féin’s national executive, the Ard Comhairle.
O’Caoláin is, as you’d expect, a seasoned espouser of the Sinn Féin party line. What is striking about him though is that he not only adopts those familiarly guarded tones when speaking on policy matters. His every word is actually delivered as though it has been individually vetted by some internal department of weights and measures.
The interview takes place on a weekday evening at 6pm, in the tiny, cluttered garret, above the Sinn Féin Shop on Monaghan’s Dublin Street, which serves as Caoimhghín O’Caoláin’s constituency office.
Liam Fay: In a word, how would you describe what has been emerging from the Dublin Castle tribunal about the financial relationship between Ben Dunne and Charlie Haughey?
Caoimhghín O’Caoláin: Sleaze is certainly the one word that comes to my mind immediately. People have had their worst fears confirmed by some of the revelations that have emerged since the Sam Smyth exposé. The past few days have shown that there are clearly two sets of norms that apply: one for those at the very highest echelons of power and privilege within this state, and one for the rest of us, ordinary people who are trying to make ends meet.
LF: Haughey would have been a Taoiseach much admired by many nationalists in the border counties – how do you view him now in the light of what’s emerged?
COC: I’d have to reserve my judgement. I have been conscious of Charlie Haughey’s dominant figure within Fianna Fáil politics for many years and I have not been comfortable with Fianna Fáil politics throughout my adult political life. He would be very much a part of all of that. Whatever about perceptions, it’s important that we have people in positions of responsibility who enjoy the confidence and the trust of ordinary people.
LF: Are you prepared to be upfront about where Sinn Féin gets its funding from?
COC: Sinn Féin’s position in relation to the funding of the most recent general election is, of course, open to scrutiny. There is absolutely no question about it. We have no difficulty with that. Despite some media speculation, ours was a very carefully tailored campaign here in Cavan/Monaghan, and the funding of it comes from our supporters and from fund-raising activities that are open and public.
LF:And that is your only source of funding?
COC: That is all.
LF: If it ever emerged that money used by Sinn Féin had been generated illegally, would you resign from the party?
COC: It won’t emerge.
LF: It’s so unlikely that you can’t imagine it ever arising?
COC: It’s not only unlikely, it certainly is not the case. I have every confidence in that. My background is in the financial world and I’m responsible for the funding of the party here in this constituency over many years. I can categorically assure you that every penny that we spend has been hard-raised by ordinary decent members of this party and its supporters over a protracted period of time. We have a lot of debt to address out of this election, and indeed we have a rump from a previous election in 1994 yet to address. That is the reality.
LF: It is widely accepted that the IRA funded its campaign for a great many years through bank robberies in the Republic – what’s your opinion of that legacy?
COC: I don’t speak for the IRA, as you very well know, and I’m not prepared to make any judgement in terms of the IRA’s activities either way. Sinn Féin is the organisation that I belong to and the organisation within which I work, and I’m committed to its success. So, if you have questions in relation to the IRA’s activity, I suggest that you direct them to the IRA.
LF: Sinn Féin agree with the IRA’s stated justification for the IRA’s existence. Surely then Sinn Féin have a responsibility to tell us what they believe is the most desirable way in which the IRA should fund its actions? Are bank robberies the best way?
COC: I think that that is a question that you will have to direct to the IRA.
LF: You don’t even have an opinion on it!
COC: Hold on, my situation is that I am working towards a situation where there will be no longer a reason for the IRA to remain in business, period. That is the logical conclusion of whatever thoughts I’ve had on the IRA and on their activities and on their role, over many, many years. That is my determination and I make that very, very clear indeed.
LF: If the IRA have to get money from somewhere, is it better that they get it from robbing or from contributions?
COC: You’re getting into an area that you know is a minefield in itself. What am I to suggest? That people make contributions to the IRA? What are you asking me to say?
LF: To give us your opinion.
COC: I have given you my answer. I’m afraid that, like many other questions that people in the media wish to put, I will give you my answer in my construction, and not in yours.
LF: When you worked in the bank, were you ever tempted to even daydream about the possibility of diverting some of the cash that passed through your hands into your own pocket?
COC: I can never recall any such thought processes of my own. Certainly, with those with whom I worked during the years that I was there, the contrary is the case. People probably develop a contempt for money. It only becomes an aspect of one’s work.
LF: A contempt for money or for stealing?
COC: Well, I had a contempt for stealing anyway, period. We would certainly have presumed that people would come into the banking process with that disposition in any event.
LF: Was your contempt for money part of the thinking behind your decision to resign from the bank and work full-time for Sinn Féin?
COC: I took a conscious decision, as a single person, to give up my career. I was influenced primarily by the selflessness of the young men who had died on hunger strike in the previous year of 1981. I agonised over my decision. It wasn’t one that I took lightly or quickly. I went from a salaried position to a voluntary position within Sinn Féin. One does not have contempt for money when one doesn’t have any. Looking back over it now, despite the fact that it brought its personal financial downside for me and I experienced considerable harassment and hostility, those initial years, and the years since, have been for me, as a human being, the most productive and personally satisfying
LF: What was the single worst act of harassment that you experienced?
COC: House-raids are certainly very, very traumatic experiences, not only for the individual but I’m married and have a young family, and they were subjected to that. That’s a very intrusive situation.
LF: When was the last time your house was raided?
COC: It hasn’t happened for quite some period of time. I was also regularly stopped for car searches. This was a regular feature of my early years as a Sinn Féin activist.
LF: Were you ever beaten by the Gardaí?
COC: No, I have never been. I have never been arrested.
LF: Weren’t you held in Mountjoy for some time after refusing to keep the peace following a street protest in Monaghan?
COC: A street protest during the hunger strike. I faced what I faced at that time but I wasn’t arrested at any time.
LF: In a strongly-worded statement issued to the Monaghan newspaper, The Northern Standard, you spoke trenchantly about what you saw as your “vilification” by the media, in the aftermath of the Lurgan shootings. Who do you blame for this vilification, editors or individual journalists?
COC: Let me say, first of all, that what happened at Lurgan is very regrettable indeed. I was deeply shocked and also saddened by what took place. That was the backdrop to the media barrage that I was subjected to personally. I would not have been prepared for what was, for me, a very difficult first couple of weeks as an elected deputy. I did not enjoy a honeymoon period with the media. Opinion-shapers made it their crusade, over a week to ten day period, to direct very personalised attacks at me. They used the opportunity to vilify and pillory me in a very personal way. They ill-served their own profession by getting into the whole business of name-calling, misrepresentation and demonisation. Given the role that I play, and the commitment of my party, I think it was most unfortunate, unhelpful and, certainly on a personal level, it was a very hurtful experience for me and my family.
LF: There was also considerable fury directed at you by ordinary members of the public, some of whom had voted for Sinn Féin, on the Liveline programme in which you participated after the Lurgan shootings. Were those people also wrong to voice their anger?
COC: I certainly cannot reject any member of the public having an opportunity to express their opinion. I would encourage it. What I believe, however, is that the radio programmes promoted a very one-sided reaction. I have no doubt there were very many people who would have sought to make a contribution on the basis that they were equally annoyed and upset by what happened and yet wanted to encourage people not to start slamming the door in the face of Sinn Féin but instead to recognise the importance of ensuring inclusivity, particularly at a time of great emotional stress for everybody. What happened at Lurgan was an unquestionably tragic event, and there have been many, many tragic events that have affected all communities over the years, but the greater tragedy was that people, in reaction to what happened at Lurgan, would turn away and walk away from the responsibilities of helping to build for an inclusive peace process. I believe that sincerely. It is not a defensive line for me, as a Republican, to take. It is, from my view, stating the obvious.
LF: Sinn Féin figures like yourself are constantly saying that you want people to help you “move the political process forward.” A lot of people feel that they have already helped; they have voted for Sinn Féin, you have elected representatives in both Westminster and Dublin, your party has been brought in from the cold. Are those people not entitled to feel that their help has been flung back in their faces by what happened at Lurgan?
COC: Of course they’ve helped and their votes have been very, very important. These votes are strong statements of support for Sinn Féin in its broad analysis. But we recognise very clearly, because it is our central policy position, that these votes are for our peace strategy. We are committed to our peace strategy and we are very mindful of our responsibilities. We will be true to that and we are true to that, and continue to work earnestly, night and day, in order to move the situation on. The confidence and trust that is being placed in me, and in my colleagues, will be met and, I hope, will be delivered on as soon as we can see the conditions necessary in place.
LF: As the reaction to the Lurgan murders illustrated, aren’t you being undermined in that endeavour by the continuing violence of the IRA?
COC: That is most regrettable, what happened. But I would say to you that it should encourage us all to redouble our efforts. Sinn Féin was not on its own able to bring about the declaration of a ceasefire in August 1994. Sinn Féin has not got it within its gift to bring about a ceasefire on its own. But we will face up to our responsibilities. With others, I am confident that we will re-build a credible and self-sustaining peace process that will lead to all-inclusive negotiations.
LF: You are constantly saying that we all have “responsibilities” in relation to actions such as the murders at Lurgan. Is it not the case, in a moral sense, that the person who pulled the trigger has a particular responsibility that none of the rest of us share?
COC: There’s no question that the responsibility for what happened at Lurgan rests with the IRA. There are many contributory factors. Everything has to be evaluated in the light of the circumstances that apply, and in the light of the overall situation that maintains. For many people, within the reality of that situation in the North of Ireland, you’re talking about a war situation. When you talk in terms of “murders” you’re talking about something that is at a remove from the reality as those people see it. That is also a factor. Look at the killings by the hand of the British Army, the RUC, the UDR/RIR, never mind the Loyalist paramilitaries. Does your proposition apply right across the board or is it selective?
LF: I’m talking about murders carried out by both sides. How can the same word, “responsibility” apply to all of us, to me every bit as much as to the person who actually pulls the trigger and kills a policeman?
COC: What we’re talking about is searching for a solution and, yes, I do apply that word to all of us, without any hesitation. It is everyone’s responsibility. I believe in a political approach. That’s why I’m involved in politics as an elected representative. I believe that it is our bounden responsibility, maybe even the greater responsibility may I say, if we do believe in the primacy of politics, rather than the politics of the last resort, which is armed actions. It is the responsibility of people in political life foremost, in my view, to address the core causes of the conflict.
LF: You complain about media vilification but all the media vilification in the world doesn’t do as much damage to Sinn Féin’s case and cause as the shootings in Lurgan have done.
COC: The IRA have responsibilities – don’t misunderstand me. And I hope, at the right moment, that they too will demonstrate, as they have demonstrated in the past, that they will face up to their responsibilities. In terms of the media vilification, there has not been a preparedness on the part of some – I don’t say all – to understand the situation that Sinn Féin finds itself in and the difficulties that Sinn Féin must address. The whole concentration on the search for what they might view as the weak-link in the Sinn Féin chain who would come out and utter the ‘condemnation’ word – this is a false crusade. What they should be actively doing if they do believe, as I believe, in the primacy of politics is encouraging Sinn Féin, encouraging the electorate and encouraging engagement and inclusivity. There have been little signs of that in any of the public commentary. Most of those who have disappointed me greatest are advocating the politics of marginalisation and exclusion which, in my view, is a recipe for continued conflict.
LF: You specifically complained about “despicable newspaper cartoons” in your statement about your treatment by the media. Was there one in particular that really hurt you?
COC: There were a number. They’re quite pathetic. They’ve appeared in a number of publications, and I’ll leave it at that.
LF: Without naming the publication then, what was the image or caricature that most upset you?
COC: Those that are clearly intent on portraying Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, myself and others in the role of demons, when our role is one earnestly in search of peace. It is very, very unhelpful to characterise people in that way. They are clearly meant to hurt and to disaffect those who have given us their confidence and trust. They are meant to question the character and sincerity of those whom I have mentioned. As somebody who has worked with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and others for many years, I can say that there are no more sincere people working within the overall political landscape on this island than the representative leadership of Sinn Féin today.
LF: If Adams and others are to be taken at their word, isn’t it now apparent that there is a split within the Republican movement? Adams talks peace while the IRA continue to wage war.
COC: There is no split within the IRA that I am aware of and there is certainly no split within Sinn Féin. When you talk about the “movement,” there is a suggestion that there are structures. There is no structure called the “Republican Movement”. A movement is a tendency and it can represent a swathe of organisations, moving in tandem towards a given objective.
LF: What do you make of Mo Mowlam as a Northern Secretary?
COC: I’m not in a position to make any judgement at this stage. It’s much too soon. I think that what happened at Drumcree certainly indicates that this government, no different than its predecessor, has bowed to the pressure placed on it by one community in its determined self-interest. That is most, most regrettable indeed.
LF: Isn’t it the case that, as the senior representative of British power in Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam is a legitimate target for the IRA?
COC: I’m not in the business of discussing such matters. You know that, in asking the question. Am I a legitimate target? I ask you the question.
LF: For Loyalist terrorists, I’d imagine that you are.
COC: Let’s focus in what we have to do. I’m certainly not going to get diverted into the type of cul-de-sac that your question invites.
LF: But Sinn Féin are the only people who have a direct line to the IRA and can therefore tell us how they think?
COC: Sinn Féin’s line, for what it is in terms of any connection with any other Republican organisation, is in terms of presenting its analysis. Our analysis is what we present both publicly and privately.
LF: Have you ever been part of any of the Sinn Féin delegations that, we have been told, have gone to the IRA at various times?
COC: No, I never have.
LF: Do they consist of Gerry Adams alone?
COC: I honestly could not reflect on that for you. I have not personally been a party to that direct engagement.
LF: In terms of peace talks, is it realistic to expect that those who are now in violent mode will abandon violence on the basis of achieving less than their ideal of a United Ireland?
COC: We have to take the overview. We have to recognise that we have a responsibility to work out a new future and a new framework for the governance of this island, on the basis of a shared identity and respect for diversity. I do not believe that it is beyond the imagination or the ability of people of good intent to sit down together and find a framework that will, at one time, reflect the national rights of the people of this island and equally encompass the special relationship of a significant minority on this island with the neighbouring island of Britain. It’s not going to be easy but that is our purpose. Sinn Féin will present our analysis which clearly reflects that it is our belief, and our preferred option, that a unitary state solution is the one that best guarantees the future I have outlined. It’s up to our powers of persuasion then, and our ability to articulate our analysis and beliefs. That is what the whole basis of dialogue and negotiation is about.
LF: What, short of a United Ireland, will you settle for?
COC: The process of negotiation is where all the options will be examined. I’m certainly not going to pre-empt, as others have, what those negotiations may or may not present.
LF: Would settling for less than a United Ireland be a betrayal of those who have died on the Republican side?
COC: Again, what you’re doing is pre-empting an outcome for a talks process that has yet to come about. That is not helpful. I’m certainly not going to get into the whole field of speculation. I’ve told you what our position is.
LF: Does Sinn Féin have a negotiating bottom line, even if you aren’t prepared to say what it is?
COC: Sinn Féin are not drawing any bottom line position. We’re going in there prepared to play a responsible role in the search for an agreed solution.
LF: Are you disappointed that Bertie Ahern is not now going to appoint Albert Reynolds as some sort of “peace envoy” or “roving ambassador”?
COC: I don’t know that specific appointments in relation to the need for the re-creation of an inclusive peace process are particularly advantageous. Not only Bertie Ahern, not only Albert Reynolds, but each and every one of us have a bounden responsibility to play a positive role in the search for a lasting solution. I’ve no doubt that Albert Reynolds, who has played a very important role in the past, will continue to play an important role in the future, in whatever capacity he is asked to serve.
LF: Would it have helped at all if Albert had been given a defined role with a specific remit?
COC: The responsibility is a collective one of government. I think the whole idea was an insufficiently explored proposition. Sinn Féin are not particularly unnerved by the fact that that appointment was not made. We do have confidence that Bertie Ahern will give leadership in government that will be positively disposed towards the type of process that we believe is necessary at this moment in time.
LF: Who would you like to see elected as President?
COC: We’ll have to wait and see the range of choices. If you’d asked me in different circumstances, I would have said Gerry Adams.
LF: What do you mean “different circumstances”?
COC: Well, I think that Gerry Adams would make a very fine President, of a united Ireland.
LF: How did you feel as you walked into Leinster House for the first time, flanked by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness?
COC: I was very aware of the historic steps that we were taking. It was a very small step for any one of to us take but very significant, both historically and in that it signposts Sinn Féin’s arrival and intent to play a full and participatory role at that level of politics on this island for the future. I was very proud to be the first to take those steps. But, let’s make no mistake about it, it was also a very humbling experience too. It comes with a huge responsibility. It comes with the stated confidence and trust of 11 and a half thousand people.
LF: Were you impressed by the grandeur and pomp of Leinster House?
COC: I’m not new to political chambers, having been a member of Monaghan County Council for more than 12 years. My first impression of Leinster House was that it is a very big county council. The numbers were more stacked against me than I’ve ever experienced before. On Monaghan County Council, I’ve always enjoyed the presence of a party colleague. On Monaghan Urban District Council, I’ve enjoyed the presence of colleagues. I’ve very much on my own in Leinster House at this moment in time.
LF: Did you make it to the Dáil bar?
COC: I have not even an idea of where the bars are located. And I don’t think it will involve me very much.
LF: Don’t Sinn Féin TDs know how to celebrate?
COC: We can celebrate the same as everybody else. However difficult the proposition may appear, even somebody like me can let my hair down.
LF: Speaking of which, were you as unnerved, as I was, at the number of toupees on show at the Dáil on the opening day?
COC: I wasn’t particularly paying attention to the toupees. But, I must say, I’m very proud of my bald state. I was never, ever tempted to disguise it.
LF: Were you personally hurt by the number of TDs who cold-shouldered you on that first day?
COC: I’m totally unaware that I was, at any time, cold-shouldered. To the contrary of what was suggested and signposted by others, the reality was that I was met and greeted and congratulated by a range of re-elected and newly-elected members of the House.
LF: What did Bertie say to you?
COC: Bertie came and thanked me for my support for his election and wished me well in the course of the term ahead.
LF: Did you feel any sense of embarrassment or shame about the fact that the first vote cast by Sinn Féin in such a long time should effectively put into power the Progressive Democrats?
COC: That’s not what I did at all. I voted for Bertie as Taoiseach but I subsequently abstained in the vote for government and I’ve made it patently clear what my reasons were. As a representative of Sinn Féin, I’m not an independent, I will be guided and assisted in the whole assessment of each issue that arises in the House by the Ard Comhairle, the national leadership of my party, of which I’m a member. Our determination was to vote for Bertie Ahern for Taoiseach in the context of the need to re-build an inclusive peace process.
LF: But we couldn’t have Bertie as Taoiseach without the PDs.
COC: That’s not of my choosing, and I think it’s important to take that onboard. I abstained on the vote for his government, primarily because the programme for government, with the input of the Progressive Democrats, includes elements that are clearly regressive in terms of the socio-economic areas that I am particularly keen upon. In my view, these elements will actually copperfasten disadvantage rather than address it. I have signposted that I am most definitely not onboard with the new government and its programme of legislation. I will judge each proposal on its merits. I will act, first and foremost, in the interests of my constituency and then in the overview from Sinn Féin’s perspective.
LF: Would you describe yourself as a religious person?
COC: I am a religious person. I am more a religious person from my sense of Christian values and, it is not a contradiction to say, my sense of the goodness of the human person. So, I would be a humanist as well as a religious person. I don’t see a conflict in representing myself as both.
LF: Do you believe in God?
COC: I believe in God.
LF: Are you a regular mass-goer?
COC: I do attend mass, with my children.
LF: What are your hobbies?
COC: The little spare time that I’ve got I try to spend with my wife and children. I enjoy music, listening to all kinds of music. I have a very broad appreciation of music.
LF: Big Tom?
COC: No, certainly not! I hope that’s not a disappointment to Big Tom. I know that Big Tom is very big in County Monaghan but he hasn’t featured within my listening habits. I like the songs of many of our Irish female singers, particularly Frances Black. I enjoy the music of The Chieftains. And I am quite conversant with modern popular music tendencies, because my children have made it an ever-present backdrop within our home. The Spice Girls and Boyzone all feature in their tastes.
LF: Do you sing yourself? The occasional rebel song perhaps?
COC: I hardly know the words of two songs. I could pick up a verse of most songs but I don’t have a singing voice. I would be a backing singer, which has been very much a part of my political role in the past, as backing rather than lead. Now, I’m in a lead position which will challenge me a little.
LF: Are you a sports fan?
COC: My main sporting appreciations have been tennis and squash. In my last year at the bank, I won the Midlands League as a squash player.
LF: Tennis and squash wouldn’t be the traditional sports one would associate with rural Republicanism.
COC: Yeah, well, I enjoyed tennis and squash as a young person. I still do. I don’t still play, unfortunately; time doesn’t allow. If I could shed a few pounds and become a wee bit more fit, I’d be very happy to take to the squash court again.
LF: In an era when Sinn Féin talk so much about the importance of “gestures” and “confidence-building measures,” shouldn’t the GAA now remove its ban on RUC members playing gaelic football or hurling?
COC: The GAA have got to make their own decisions on that. I’m not directly involved in the GAA, even though it has been suggested in the past that that is an absolute attribute of any perspective TD. However, I do enjoy gaelic games and strongly support the county team here on the big occasions. I’m also looking forward to Cavan winning the Ulster final.
LF: Wouldn’t the GAA’s removal of the ban on RUC men be a useful gesture?
COC: When we talk in terms of gestures, gestures are a two-way street. The GAA have to make their determination of it in the light of all the circumstances that apply. But certainly, gestures are important and they must come from all sides. The GAA is a sporting organisation and I’m not going to prescribe what the GAA should do. I have too much respect for them to prescribe how they should respond to any given situation.
LF: Do you share the literary bent of Gerry Adams or Danny Morrison?
COC: I have never attempted to undertake to prepare a book, a novel or even a ditty or a poem. When I do put pen to paper, as I do on a fairly frequent basis, it’s usually with more serious intent, as in our own press statements and developing out ideas on policy positions.
LF: So, you won’t be writing Memoirs Of A Bank Clerk?
COC: It’s already been written. I remember reading a very good book by a former bank manager from Donegal, I believe. His name may have been Burke. The book’s title was Like Any Other Man, which most of them are.
LF: Are you young enough to appreciate the common sense of the argument that cannabis should be legalised?
COC: Well, (pause). My own position is reflected within our party policy. We’re very strongly opposed to a drugs culture. We’re very strongly opposed to the promotion of the use of drugs within our society. We are very aware of the great damage that continues to be done by the developing use of drugs, from soft to hard. I’m not convinced of the argument that is presented in favour of cannabis but, certainly, I haven’t got a closed mind.
LF: Which would you say causes the most destruction: the importation of cannabis into this country or the importation of guns?
COC: At the end of the day, the importation of neither causes a problem. It’s the use of both.
LF: Did you ever smoke dope yourself?
COC: No, I never have, and have never been tempted to.
LF: What’s your attitude to the summary justice that is dealt out to alleged drugs-dealers on both sides of the border?
COC: Like my party, I am totally opposed to the so-called punishment beatings that have taken place. They are an inappropriate response to the difficulties that communities face in the absence, particularly within the north of Ireland, of a credible policing service. The responsibility is on all of us to work towards the conditions that will allow for a credible policing service to be brought about, one that will address the major difficulties that communities face. I hope we will see a situation in the not-too-distant future where all of that will be confined to the past.
LF: Do you any see any similarity between the harassment that you and other Sinn Féin activists have experienced, and the marching on homes in Dublin’s inner-city of people identified as “a drugs menace” by mobs or, if you prefer, large groups of community activists?
COC: No, I don’t. I would reject that there is any. The state is there, allegedly, to serve all, and all citizens are to be respected within it. My right to my political beliefs, as with all those who hold any view, is paramount. It’s very important that we don’t have a situation here where we have majoritarianism to the point that those with an alternative view are not respected and given the right to argue their case. Many, many people young people of good intent, and who would have been of great worth and value to the developing politics of Sinn Féin, were lost to this party through the bullying and heavy-handed tactics of sections of the Gardaí with the blessing of respective and successive governments. Many, many times, people have questioned why Sinn Féin have not enjoyed greater support. I would suggest to you that, against that backdrop, the survival of Sinn Féin in this state at all was a great tribute to each and every one who made up the core organisation of this party.
LF: Returning to the mob harassment of alleged, and by no means proven, drug dealers, do you not feel any empathy with their situation?
COC: I think that communities do have a role in dealing with the drugs menace. And communities have very responsibly responded to the situation within their immediate concern. It is not the ideal reaction but, in the absence of an address to the difficulties they face, people have made judgements, judgements that I am not, where I sit, in a position to make a trite analysis of. Or to say that I would have acted any differently, as a parent or as a member of that community, faced with the same crisis threat to my children, myself and my neighbours.
LF: You daughters are still very young. But, as they grow older, do you see yourself as someone who will find it easy to talk to them about subjects such as drugs and sex, contraception and so on?
COC: I certainly do. My wife and I have discussed it. Our children are coming to an age that these are issues that we certainly will have to inform them of. We will give them the full gambit of information so that they will be better able to face the difficulties and challenges of the life before them from an informed position.
LF: How would you feel if one of your girls announced in later life that she was gay?
COC: I think it’s unfortunate that you present that in the hypothetical case that you do, so we will leave aside the position of my own family. I accept and fully appreciate the rights of people to their own sexuality. I think that Sinn Féin, as a party, has a very advanced and very progressive and very caring and responsible appreciation of the rights of people to their own sexuality.
LF: If one of your daughters was to become actively involved in armed Republicanism, how would you react to that?
COC: Again, I would have to protest. I don’t wish to use my children as the basis of your hypothetical questions so I think that we could approach this in a different way. What I would say in answer to the basis of your question is that it is my purpose, my mission if you wish, as an active Republican and Sinn Féin elected representative, to create the conditions, and to work towards a situation, where armed Republicanism will no longer be a feature of the political landscape on or between these islands. I have every confidence in Sinn Féin’s ability to succeed in the engagement with all others to bring about real and substantial change. Change that will lead us out of conflict.
LF: What do you think of the depiction of Monaghan, and all who sail in her, in the books of Pat McCabe, such as The Butcher Boy?
COC: No disrespect to Pat but, in recent times, I have not had the opportunity to read very much from a novel point of view or, indeed, any reading for the pursuit of relaxation. I am not in a position to reflect on his work, except to say that I am conscious and aware of his success and I would wish him well, as a County Monaghan author, in the future.
LF: With the impending release of the movie of The Butcher Boy, do you think it will become cool to be from Monaghan?
COC: It has always been cool to be from Monaghan.
LF: You have spoken a great deal about the importance of nurturing the tourist industry in Cavan/Monaghan. But hasn’t the Republican movement been the single most destructive force in terms of the potential of Ireland as a tourist product?
COC: Sinn Féin’s position is that Sinn Féin has played its role responsibly. I have been a member of the County Tourism Committee of Monaghan County Council here for a number of years. I have played my part not only in encouraging the diversification of the tourist opportunities that an inland county such as Monaghan would have to offer. I have also been instrumental in organising visits to both Cavan and Monaghan by people from overseas. I will continue to do that because the tourist potential of Cavan and Monaghan will loom very large in my work in the years ahead.
LF: Is it not the case that the Confederation of British Industry has broken off talks with Sinn Féin, and with you as the party’s representative, because they no longer believe what Sinn Féin says about its commitment to helping improve the economic complexion of Northern Ireland in particular, but the border counties as well?
COC: I was one of the delegation that met with the representatives of the CBI over a period of time. I have an obvious interest in things economic. It’s my background and my interest and certainly I’m very anxious to play a full and constructive role in encouraging inward investment as well as opportunities for domestic investors. The CBI’s statement of last week is one that I very much regret. I found the meetings with the CBI very useful, very cordial and constructive. Again, it’s another indication of people responding to what happened in Lurgan in what I would view as an unhelpful way. That is the way I view their decision.
LF: Do you believe there will be an IRA ceasefire this summer?
COC: I am confident that we will see a ceasefire situation. I cannot, at this moment in time, put a timescale to that for you. But I can say that I am confident that Sinn Féin, in its engagement with both governments and other parties, will successfully aid and help to bring about the conditions to allow for a renewed ceasefire to come about.
LF: Does what happened at Drumcree change things?
COC: Again, I think it’s imperative that people don’t allow this situation, as any other, to distract them from the importance of working towards engagement, on the greater level, of the need to re-build an inclusive and credible peace process.
LF: Finally, is it a strain for you personally to be so measured and calculated in everything you say? Do you not find that difficult?
COC: I’m not measured and calculating. This is me as I am. Whether or not you are comfortable in terms of your interview with me, this is Caoimhghín O’Caoláin and it’s been a great pleasure talking to Hot Press.